Vaughn Ververs on Transparency, Focus and Critics

The editor of CBS's Public Eye discusses better-than-expected cooperation from CBS employees and answers some of the blog's critics.


Vaughn Ververs is the editor of CBS’s Public Eye blog. Before launching Public Eye in September, 2005, Ververs was editor of The Hotline, a daily political news outlet, where he also wrote a weekly column. Prior to that, he worked as an associate producer for Fox News Sunday and at Fox News Channel.

Bryan Keefer: In your mission statement, you say that Public Eye’s “fundamental mission is to bring transparency to the editorial operations of CBS News,” but also that “When stories about journalists and journalism are in the news, Public Eye will write and report about them.” You’ve been criticized recently for a lack of focus. There was a column in the Los Angeles Times that said, “It’s fine to want to play media critic, although that role doesn’t always mix well with the job description of viewers’ representative. Public Eye may ultimately need to decide which master it wants to serve.”

What exactly is it that Public Eye does?

Vaughn Ververs: Just what our mission statement says. We’re here to engage in a conversation with the audience of CBS News. The main part of that conversation is about what is on the air at CBS. We’ve delved into a lot of different issues. We’ve taken cameras into editorial meetings. We’ve answered specific complaints about a lot of stories that have appeared on broadcast, from 60 Minutes to 48 Hours to the Evening News; we’ve tried to give people a look behind the scenes at how the news is put together at CBS News. That’s our main focus.

The other part of our job is to talk about these things that are going on out in the world of journalism, because what affects one part of journalism, we believe, affects everybody in one way or another. And these are issues that everybody is struggling with and grappling with, and that’s part of the conversation we’re trying to have.

BK: Do you think you’ve had an impact within CBS?

VV: It’s hard to say. I don’t think you can point to anything that’s happened, that’s been put on the air, and say that Public Eye had anything, necessarily, to do with that. I do think that, if anything, what we’ve been able to do is impress upon people at CBS the importance of engaging in conversations with the audience and critics and so forth. I think that we’ve maybe raised the level of awareness there. But it’s pretty early. We’ve only been at this for eight months or so, and I think this is going to continue to grow.

BK: Has it been, would you say, well-received by CBS employees? Or are they hostile to you?

VV: Not hostile. One of the things that has surprised me about doing this job, when I first came into it, I expected a little bit more push-back and a little more reluctance to cooperate with us. And we just haven’t met a high level of that. There have been a couple occasions where we get a little push-back now and again, but for the most part, it’s pretty encouraging that people who are putting the news together are willing to talk to us and to explain how they’re doing it, why they’re doing it, and answer some of the criticisms. I think we’ve been pleasantly surprised by their willingness to do that.

BK: Do you guys get any air time? Do you have any plans for a “Public Eye Live”?

VV: No. We try to do video on the blog as much as possible, we probably will be expanding that in the future and getting more of our own stuff, whether it’s interviews with correspondents, or maybe a Webcast of some sort, those are things that we’re thinking about.

But as far as us having a presence on the TV side, that’s not really a part of our mission here. If that were to happen, I guess that would be great, but that’s not what we’re about.

BK: How is it writing for a TV network? Do you feel like your contributions are valued or devalued because of the format that they’re in?

VV: Well, I think you have to understand the separation we have with the network. We are under the auspices of CBS Digital Media, a separate division of CBS News, albeit obviously the Web site and the news division work very closely together, we’re all part of the same company. But we do sort of operate — and especially Public Eye — even a little more separately than even the Web site does. So we’re sort of off in our own world, and I think that’s important for what we’re doing. So I don’t consider what Public Eye does to be writing for the network. I think we’re doing our own thing. We’re affiliated with the network via the Web site, but I kind of consider us almost a separate entity.

BK: How do you end up picking what to cover? Obviously, you have a whole array of CBS News programs to shoot at or comment on, and you also have everything else going on in the world of media. How do you end up making the decisions about what you write about?

VV: Well, the first thing we do is pay attention to our email box, our commenters, and criticisms that we pick up, whether it’s in a newspaper article, or on a blog or on talk radio, if we are picking up questions that are being raised about something that involves CBS News on a journalistic level, that’s our starting point, every day and every few hours, that’s where we start from.

Aside from that, we use our own curiosity. There may be a story that’s being covered, and we think, “I wonder how hard it was to cover the Zacarias Moussaoui story,” so we’ll start talking to some producers, maybe a couple correspondents, about the challenges that they’re facing. If we find that’s interesting, we’ll write a story about it — we’ve done some great behind-the-scenes stories like that, a day in the life of a White House correspondent was one good one that we’ve done.

So we use our own curiosity, and beyond that, when there are things that are impacting the rest of the world of journalism, we’ll delve into those, too.

BK: Hypothetical, here: What would you have done if you were around in 2004 for the 60 Minutes II story about Bush’s National Guard service? How would you have covered that, how would you have gone after that?

VV: The most often-asked question we’ve had. All I can say about that is that we would have covered it the same way that everyone else was covering it. We would have tried to talk to the people involved with that story and asked them, what about the questions that are being raised on blogs, what’s your response to those? We would have done the same thing that any other reporter would have done, under those circumstances. Whether they would have answered us, any more than they would have answered anybody else, I can’t say, because that’s up to them. The people at CBS News are under no obligation to give us anything special, that’s part of our separation that exists here. But I think they understand — at least, since I’ve been here, they understand the value of engaging in that dialogue, answering those kinds of questions. How that would have played out then, you just can’t say.

BK: Going a little broader, here: There have been a lot of stories about [public editor] Barney Calame at the Times, and I was reading a piece in the American Journalism Review that I think you were interviewed in as well, discussing kind of a backlash against transparency, at least within newsrooms. Do you sense any of that, or do you think that’s coming?

VV: One of the dangers, I think, is the tone of some of the criticism can be very personal, a little rougher than journalists are used to receiving, at least on a big scale. I think that that tends to turn some of them off from engaging in the criticism.

But I think for the most part, most journalists today, no matter what they’re doing, whether it’s a newspaper reporter or a TV network producer, I think they understand that we’re living in a new environment where transparency is just a necessity of that environment. I think the real perhaps danger in transparency is allowing that kind of thing — criticism, or fear of criticism, or anything like that — to affect the way that journalists do their job. I have not seen any evidence of that. I think that’s the danger of going maybe a little too far with transparency, but I think that everybody sort of understands that we live in this new media environment. How it’s going to look ten years from now, I think nobody really knows, but I think people understand you’ve got to be transparent to some degree.

BK: What would you do if somebody came to you and said, you get the CBS evening newscast, do with it what you want. How would you change it? Would you distribute it differently? Would you do more online stuff? Would you speed up the pace of it — how would you handle it?

VV: Boy, that’s a tough question. That’s why I’m a writer and a critic, and not an executive.

I think that within any journalism, I think the important thing is to be fair, accurate and try to get at the truth as you see it. What kind of platform you serve that on, or whatever, is, I think, secondary to the main mission of journalism, when you’re trying to tell stories, you’re trying to get the news out, and I think as long as you do those things well, as long as you get the basics covered, I think that you’re going to do just fine.

The rest of it is sort of above my pay grade. I don’t necessarily want to be in that pay grade, and frankly, we don’t spend a lot of time talking about those kinds of things on the blog, because what we’re interested in is the journalism — not the delivery systems, not the things that go around the journalism, but the actual journalism itself, and I think as long as those basics are strong, you’re going to be fine, regardless of what kind of platform you’re on.

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.